Republican reformers are getting excited. For years, Ross Douthat and David Frum have been stubbornly making the case for a more moderate and economically populist GOP that would speak to and offer solutions for the problems facing struggling Americans. They are no longer voices crying out in the wilderness.
David Brooks has joined them in a column touting several reform-minded articles in the latest issue of National Affairs, a center-right policy journal. This comes in the wake of a recent speech by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and some not-so-recent speeches by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) on how the GOP might begin to combat poverty.
Taken together, these columns, articles, and speeches show that the movement for Republican reform has begun to persuade…at least a dozen people.
That's no doubt an exaggeration on the low end, but it goes a long way toward explaining why I'm skeptical about reform efforts. By all means, such efforts are to be applauded and encouraged. But until Republican voters begin to express their support for them in opinion polls and at the ballot box, reform proposals will remain the impotent pet projects of pundits and politicians.
The fact is that there's no sign so far that those voters want anything to do with new government initiatives to help the poor — or to do anything else for that matter. "Government is too big!" "Taxes are too high!" "Washington is the problem, not the solution!" Those are the only messages the Republican base wants to hear — and thus the only messages most Republicans dare deliver on the campaign trail or act on in the halls of Congress.
There's a reason why the first tentative expressions of support for reform have come from senators, who are elected by entire states every six years. That distance from those partisan passions, which have produced a deep right-wing skew in gerrymandered House districts, gives senators more ideological freedom of movement.
Still, Republican senators must deal with irascible primary voters. And in the House there is no such freedom, which is why that chamber's Republican majority refuses to budge on extending unemployment benefits or reversing cuts to food stamps. It is also why Speaker John Boehner's (R-Ohio) efforts to revive immigration reform is likely to fail as well. Republican voters want none of it, and that's exactly what they'll get.
Congressman Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. He, too, has been trying to rebrand himself as a reformer — talking about the problem of poverty, and reaching a bipartisan deal to pass the bill that temporarily ended gridlock over the budget. All of it is an effort to make himself palatable as a general election presidential candidate. (Nothing inspires donors like "electability.") But his position is only possible because he established himself as a leading conservative warrior on economic issues, which got the Romney ticket in so much trouble in 2012; indeed, it remains to be seen whether Ryan's commitment to centrist reform is anything more than PR gloss.
That points to the depth of the GOP's problem. Its base uncompromisingly demands that party members toe a line that places them far to the right of the median American voter. As long as that continues, Republicans will find themselves out of serious contention for the White House — and unable to follow through on any serious proposals for reform.